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A Short Story - A ROOF FOR THE NIGHT
THE grey ragged mountains had long since vanished into cloud even before the darkness of night cloaked the landscape. In a few hours the day had been transformed. Black clouds had fought and won supremacy in the sky, the wane late October sunshine had given way to a steady drizzle, reducing visibility dramatically. From the ridge road above the Loch they had watched the rain sweep over the water like a white misty wall. The wind tugged and twisted at the tall trees like a destructive child. The waves of the Loch beat upon the rocky, shingled shore. All colour had been drained from the world.
The road was narrow. Peter drove slowly, crouched over the steering wheel. The windscreen wipers swooshed back and forth, frenzied devils. Rain drummed on the car roof, shimmering across the surface of the road. The high mountains screened out the car radio, interference and static. Jennifer switched it off, sat huddled in her heavy coat, peering into the descending darkness. Rain glistened in their headlights like silver daggers.
“How far is it to the next town?” she asked. They had no map.
“Ten miles, maybe twenty. Further than I want to drive in this weather.”
“Perhaps there's a farm or a cottage somewhere we could shelter for the night...”
“If we see it! The rain's getting heavier. This area is pretty desolate and bleak even in summer. Few people live here. Thank goodness we've got enough petrol.”
They had left Fort William that morning, driving north. The ancient rock-strewn glens had loomed on every side, the lower slopes of the mountains covered with yews and pine, like dark green stubble. Seduced by the false promise of good weather they had deviated from their planned route, stopped and picnicked by the Loch. White clouds, like strange dragons, had drifted above the glen, casting shadows across the scree, leapfrogging the ridges. Giant anvils had reared up into the sky. It was spectacular and awe-inspiring, but also a forewarning of the change in the weather.
They had resumed their journey later then intended and had almost immediately taken the wrong turning, a rough tarmac road which climbed steeply only to peter out into a muddy and impassable cart-track. By the time they had reversed and rejoined the main road it was already getting dark and overcast. Night fell and torrential rain followed.
“Peter!” said Jennifer suddenly, “I thought I saw a light over there.”
“Are you sure? It's almost impossible to even see the front of the car. It might have been the reflection of our headlights or something...”
“No, no, I'm positive it was a light, perhaps a house or crofter's cottage. Stop the car a minute and let me try and get my bearing.” She wound the window down, rain spat in her face. “Look, there!” She pointed, “I was right. To the left, just off the road...A dim square yellow light.”
Peter peered into the darkness. “You are right, Jenny. It's a house.” They moved forward again. “What incredible luck. Maybe they could put us up for the night. There's the turning, by that stone post.”
“Careful, it's full of potholes. Just as well the suspension is good on this car.”
The headlights stabbed the darkness, eventually illuminating a large but dilapidated stone house, steps leading to the front door, with tumbled-down outhouses. Peter switched off the engine and the downpour seemed to intensify.
They scrambled out and up the steps. Water cascaded from the gutters. Peter rattled the huge ornate door-knocker, a sound like pistol shots.
“It looks rather derelict, doesn't it?” Jennifer observed.
The wind continued to tug at their coats like a naughty child. The upstairs windows were black and foreboding, like dark caves in a cliff-face. The door was unbolted, it creaked open. A tall, thin, middle-aged man stood there wearing a kilt and a dark jacket, holding an oil lamp.
“We're ever so sorry to disturb you...” began Jennifer, “but we took the wrong road in the mountains and got lost in the storm...”
The lamp flame flickered. The man wore small round spectacles, black disks that totally concealed his eyes. His face was pale, with a thin moustache.
“You'd better come in, the pair of you. What a terrible night tae be oot travelling.” He ushered them inside, the door slammed shut.
“We saw the light from the road,” said Peter, still hesitant.
“Aye, and you look as if you be wanting a warm bed for the night. Where are you come from?”
The accent was of a well-educated Lowland Scot. The house was bare and shabby, without electricity or any modern amenities, but nevertheless still with traces of some former grandeur. The furniture such that remained was Victorian, dark mahogany, heavy drapes. A peat fire blazed in the sitting-room. Gloomy portraits hung on the walls bewhiskered clan chieftains, pale sad-faced Tudor ladies in black dresses and white ruffs. Curtains and wooden shutters blocked out the night.
“Are you hungry? I've precious little tae offer you I'm afraid. I've lived here alone since my sister died, an' my needs are small. But I can make you a pot of tea if you wish.”
“This is a find,” said Jennifer after he had gone and as they sat in front of the fire, “A roof for the night. Fancy living on your own here, in the middle of nowhere.”
“Lucky for us though. Perhaps he's the last of his family. This place is obviously very old seventeenth or eighteenth century maybe.”
“And still living in the dark ages. No electricity.”
“Maybe he's just a bit eccentric, or the cost is prohibitive. I think it's rather cosy.”
"”Anywhere would be cosy on a night like this.” Jennifer observed dryly.
Their host returned with tea, a silver pot, cracked china cups and some dry biscuits.
“Were you heading north?” he asked, “'Tis a bad night tae be oot travellin' on roads you dinna know. The old military road going north from here follows the Loch shoreline. In this weather the road often floods. The next town is fifteen miles away. You're welcome tae stay the night. You can have the room at the top of the stairs on the left. You will find the bathroom opposite.”
“Thank you,” said Peter, “It really is most kind of you.”
“Ouch, no trouble. I will leave you now. I sleep very little myself. I will bide you goodnight. I work late most nights in my study.”
“What a strange man,” Jennifer mused, “So taciturn. He's like a recluse. Do you realise we don't even know his name?”
“Nor has he bothered to ask us ours,” Peter observed, “Still I'm not complaining. It was good of him to put us up for the night two total strangers. Can you imagine someone doing that in London?”
“No. Perhaps it's the loneliness. He says it's fifteen miles to the nearest town. And in the winter cut off completely. However does he manage then I wonder?”
“These people are used to it, Jenny. This is their world. Their roots are here. Look at his ancestors. Clan chieftains, Highlanders even if his accent is of a Lowlander. He was probably educated in Edinburgh.”
“There's still something about him that seems strange,” Jennifer insisted.
“I expect he think the same about us, two mad Londoners driving through the Highlands in late October. Come on, let's get our things out of the car and get some sleep.”
They went to bed by candlelight. Shadows flickered across the walls and ceiling, the stairs creaked. The bedroom was stark and functional, thick dust and cobwebs everywhere. An ancient faded tapestry depicting a murky grey hunting scene hung on one wall. Outside the wind howled mournfully and the rain lashed the window.
“Hardly hotel de-luxe standards but at least its warm and dry.” said Jennifer as they snuggled beneath the musty woolen blankets.
The following morning the rain had stopped. The ground outside was still wet, the distant granite rocks glistened, the mountain burns trickled down the hillsides like silver veins. The wind continued to march the clouds across the sky, laying siege to the sun. Looking down the glen the ragged hills receded, each fainter than the last, until the most distant merged into the pale sky.
“I half expected to wake up and find that this place was just a dream,” Jennifer said as they dressed.
“If it was a dream we might have arranged for some hot water,” Peter said, shivering in the cold bare bathroom.
The house was so quiet that they found themselves tip-toeing down the stairs. In daylight everything looked even more shabby and neglected. Peter glanced into the sitting-room. The curtains were still drawn and the fire's embers smouldered in the grate. Next door, in the draughty gloomy dining-room, they found the table laid a pot of tea, fresh baked bread, and two plates of hot porridge. Of their host there was neither sign nor sound.
“Surely he must have a servant or someone here to help him. He can't live in this great rambling mansion completely alone?”
“We haven't seen or heard anyone else, Jenny,” Peter objected, “And most of the rooms are locked and unused.”
“We can't just leave without thanking him or at least saying goodbye,” Jennifer stood in the doorway, Peter by the car, “He must be somewhere.”
“I've looked everywhere. He isn't here. Maybe he's gone out walking in the glen. Perhaps we'll see him when we drive down to the Loch.”
“I left a thank-you note on the hall table. That's the least we can do. Isn't it sad how derelict the place looks? It must have been quite magnificent once.”
The car engine sounded very loud, echoing in the emptiness.
“Did you notice how old everything was? There was nothing modern no electricity, no telephone, no car, not even a paperback book. Everything had a kind of timeless quality.”
They turned a bend and the grey choppy waters of the Loch opened up before them.
“It still looks rough out there.” Jennifer said. Then suddenly realization came to both of them at once, “Why, Peter, the bridge has gone! It's been swept away in the storm!”
They stopped the car and got out. The central span of the old humped-back stone bridge had collapsed and vanished into the rushing turbulent water. They stood on the edge of the wreckage. Jennifer clung to Peter.
“If we hadn't seen that light and stopped the night at that house we would have driven down here in the darkness and plunged over into the Loch.” Emotion took hold of her. She suppressed a sob. “We would have drowned or frozen to death in the water.”
They returned to the car.
“We'd better report this to the police,” said Peter, his own voice shaky, “We shall have to take the long route now south of the Loch, and then round via the east coast. We'll stop at the first village or town we come to and tell the police.”
“Yes, we've got more to thank that strange old man for than we thought.”
“Later when we come back, we'll return this way and stop and thank him properly.” Peter promised her.
They drove in silence through a grey landscape the Loch on their left, the mountains ranged about them, the asphalt road rising and falling above the shoreline, the huge dome of sky. They passed sheep scattered like confetti on the hillsides, romantic tumbled-down castles, the crumbling dry-stone walls, the Forestry Commission conifers.
Eventually they came to some grey stone cottages, a road sign, a small town. Some bungalows, a war memorial. The police station was in a cul-de-sac, just off the main street, the end house. The local police constable was out working in his allotment. His wife answered the door.
“Ouch, Jamie's oop field back o' the Kirk. Ah git Duncan tae go with ye.”
Her brother walked with them, passed the school and up a narrow gravel path just behind the church. A police Land-Rover was parked by the gate. Despite the weather police Constable James McGuffie was in his shirtsleeves, a stocky ruddy-faced man in his early forties.
“Hey Jamie,” said his brother-in-law, “It seems that old bridge o'er the Loch by McDermott's place came doon in last night's storm. This young couple from Loondon drove past it this morning.”
“Ach, didna't I tell ye enough times that this would happen? This wha' cums o' Council scrappin' an' savin' on road maintenance like they do. I'm no' surprised.”
“Aye, well we'd best git over there reet awa' an' see the damage.”
“No peace for the wicked.” Constable McGuffie thrust his spade into the soft earth and put his uniform jacket on. “Is this the young couple that found it doon?”
“Aye, Mr and Mrs Selby. Out on the road early, they were.”
“Ye best cum with us then. I'll need tae take a statement from ye later.” He climbed into the Land-Rover, “I'm sorry. Jest formalities ye understand. I'll try not tae delay ye for any longer than necessary. Maybe ye'll stop over for a bit tae eat? I cun git ma wife tae cook ye some bacon an' eggs when we git back. Aye, I'll no' refuse some myself b' then.”
They retraced their journey along the Loch shore, eventually arriving back at the bridge where the Loch narrowed. The bridge looked like a broken tooth. They stopped and got out.
“Aye well, ye're reet enough. Gone washed reet away an' that's a fact. It'll be some while afore we git that repaired. If ye'll take my advice, sir, ye'll best cum back a different route. We'll put oop some diversion signs.” He kicked a pebble into the swirling current beneath their feet, “Ye're lucky it was daylight or ye could have gone intae the Loch yerself.”
“Yes, we realized that ourselves. Fortunately we stayed the night at the old house up there in the glen.”
Constable McGuffie turned about. He frowned.
“The old hoose ye say? McDermott's? That couldna' been much of a place tae spend the night.”
“Well, it was a bit dilapidated and primitive, but at least it was dry,” said Jennifer. “Is the old man a recluse? He told us he lived on his own.”
The two men looked at them strangely.
“Beg pardon, m'mam, but there's no old man there, no hoose either. Old McDermott's been dead these past hundred years an' the hoose fell doon years ago. There's noothin' there now. It's jest a ruin, ye know, a pile o' stones....”
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